Most people figured that the battle for the Wayne Gretzky Trophy as the winner of the OHL’s Western Conference would come down to a matchup between the London Knights and the Erie Otters, and that’s exactly what we have starting tonight.
As the leading scorer in the postseason, Mitch Marner looks to take yet another step towards showcasing his talents on junior’s biggest stage at the Memorial Cup, but as with last round, he will have to eliminate a future teammate. This time, it’s Travis Dermott and the top-ranked Erie Otters that look to knock off the OHL’s hottest and most hyped team.
These two teams enter the series very familiar with each other and very evenly matched as both teams ended the year with 105 points to lead the entire OHL. Over the regular season, the teams split their six meetings including a home and home series on the last weekend of the schedule, that saw Erie hold on to the top seed in the league and home-ice advantage for this Western Conference final.
With such high-end offensive talent in this series like Marner, Strome, and Dvorak, you’d assume a high scoring, offensive battle. In reality, these two teams gave up the fewest goals in the OHL during the regular season and have been continued the trend into the playoffs. Both teams have game breaking skill at forward but also have a defense built with veterans to go with underrated draft eligible secondary guys.
As is often the case in the playoffs, each team is going to focus on shutting down each other’s big line, so with the offensive production falling to the secondary players, guys like 2016 draft eligible forwards, Cliff Pu and Taylor Raddysh.
The Erie Otters
The Otters come into the Western Conference final with an incredible 8-1 playoff record through the first two rounds. After sweeping Saginaw, Erie made quick work of the Soo Greyhounds holding them to only two goals a game over the five-game series.
As expected, Erie’s offense has been carried by Dylan Strome and Alex DeBrincat. Strome is averaging more than two points a game through the playoffs with an astounding 10 goals through the team’s nine games. After wearing down last season and being a non-factor in the OHL Final loss to Oshawa, Strome will look to prove that being a year older will help him to maintain his performance deep into the playoffs.
From a Toronto perspective, the first two rounds of the playoffs for Erie should be nothing but exciting as Travis Dermott has been absolutely dominant on the Otters blueline. He has been shutting down the opposition’s top players while at the same time contributing 12 points in only 9 games.
Players To Watch:
Anyone paying attention to the 2016 NHL draft is aware of Otters forward Alex Debincat but there are a couple other guys that you should definitely keep your eyes on. Taylor Raddysh is a right winger that is quietly finding his way into some first round projections. He’s a big forward that has grown tremendously this season when given a bigger role in Erie, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that with continued strong play, a team could reach a little and draft him ahead of his more celebrated teammate.
Another player to keep an eye on is one that I feel is criminally underrated by most draft analysts and could end up being a mid-round steal. Jordan Sambrook is a two-way defenceman that has only now found his way into NHL Central Scouting’s top-100 North American skaters. Sambrook is a rookie that took a little while to get going this season but has shown recently that he has the potential to be an NHL player. He’s a very good skater that is able to play well with the puck and has the instincts to be relied upon in all situations. He is a late-bloomer and is still very raw but the tools are there and for a team that wants to play the long-game, he would be a great target in the mid rounds this June.
As has been the case all season, the Knights are being led by their big three of Marner, Dvorak and Tkachuk. While Dermott has been making Leafs Nation excited with his performance, Mitch Marner is reminding everyone why he is too good for the OHL and should be regarded as one of the best prospects in hockey. With 22 points through nine games, Marner is scoring at a rate much higher than his regular season pace.
With both teams likely to key in on the top players, having the kind of secondary scoring potential that the Knights do will be huge. 2016 eligible Cliff Pu has looked great so far in the playoffs and is improving his draft stock with every game.
The Knights will receive an incredibly valuable boost in the series when Max Jones returns from the 12-game suspension he received for a hit to the head in the final game of the regular season. Jones will provide the team with another forward with the ability to shut down Erie’s best offensive players.
Players To Watch:
Since his coming out party at the World Juniors, Olli Juolevi has been one of the most hyped prospects in this year’s draft. Many scouts now have him as the best defender ahead of Jakob Chychrun. He is a tremendous player and a definite top-15 prospect but during this series, it’s important to watch how isolated his minutes can be at times. He doesn’t play on the PK for London and in the series clincher against Kitchener, he had only three shifts in the third period.
While the fact that he’s now considered a top-5 prospect might mean that Juolevi is a little overrated, London has another defender who might be the exact opposite. Victor Mete may be one of the more underrated players in the draft. Currently ranked as the 74th best North American skater by Central Scouting, Mete has had a very good year in London. It may be because of his size, but Mete has the potential to drop further than he should in June and I would have no problem if the Leafs took him a little higher than most would expect, maybe using Washington’s second round pick on him. Mete is a lot like Travis Dermott, a little undersized as far as defenders go but he doesn’t play like it and while he isn’t flashy, he does everything that’s asked of him very well.
How Will The Series Go?
This series has all the potential to be the prototypical rough, grinding playoff battle. We saw during the regular season that these two teams don’t like each other and the bad blood may be escalated when Max Jones returns to the lineup. The key for each team will be for their stars to remain true to their game and not let the rough stuff side-track them. In the second last game of the season, London was able to completely neutralize Strome with rough and sometimes dirty play. He bounced back the following night as he led his team to the number one seed by being the best player on the ice.
If Strome can stay on his game and Dermott continues to play the way he has in the playoffs, the Otters have a very strong chance of stopping the team many have assumed would be the OHLs representative at the Memorial Cup.
For London to score, someone other than the big three will have to step up and provide a little offense. They have the talent to do it, but thus far in the playoffs it hasn’t been necessary.
Prediction: Erie in 7